A lot of films try really hard to portray women in some ‘correct’ way, but they often fall short by either avoiding one stereotype so hard that they end up with another equally flat stereotype or else they just ring false to such a degree that almost none of the film is believable, much less enjoyable. Therefore, I’m deliberately leaving out of this list any movies which exclusively or heavily feature female characters that are excessively mentally/emotionally unbalanced or that just spend the whole movie being helpless/brainless females who are needlessly tormented, without doing so to make a worthy point (viz., All About Eve, Gone with the Wind, Rosemary’s Baby, The Silence of the Lambs, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Million Dollar Baby, Chicago, Thelma & Louise, Carrie, V for Vendetta, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Basic Instinct, Juno, Boys Don’t Cry, Erin Brockovich, etc.). This is a list of the top 20 films that succeeded in presenting a complex, balanced female point of view while somehow avoiding all (or most) of the usual pitfalls – ranked in a highly debatable order. This fact alone, regardless of whether or not the female protagonist in question was the main character of the story, is the criteria being used.
20. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
When I was little I was very impressed with the fact that this movie had both a mother and daughter who weren’t stereotypically afraid of ghosts, and also with how dignified Gene Tierney’s character was in general. To be fair, I will also include the opposition to my opinion (which comes primarily from my dad). It’s true that the main character is conned and betrayed by a skunk of a guy, and that her success as an authoress is entirely because she’s ghost-writing (so to speak) the words of a male character. To this commentary, I would argue that the point of the movie was not so much the mistakes or triumphs of Mrs. Muir as it was how she learned from her mistakes – and more importantly how she and Captain Gregg raised Anna Muir to be a better and more competent woman than her mother (this was my main takeaway seeing it as a little girl, so perhaps this point is lost on adult first-time viewers).
19. Legally Blonde (2001)
Okay, bear with me on this one because you’ll have to think about it for a second. On the surface, if you’ve never sat through the whole film, it looks like a movie about a dumb blonde who brings “grrrl power” to Harvard. But it’s really not. This is a film about how people shouldn’t judge a woman as not being smart or competent just because she likes the color pink and and obsesses over pop culture and fashion as a hobby. She’s capable and intelligent enough to do well in a tough environment without significantly altering herself, and she’s confident enough to walk into a snotty law school wearing pink and carrying a tangerine iBook. It’s a story about how people can defy categorization when they really try and don’t give up. It’s also the story of a girl who starts out thinking a man can love her without also respecting her, but finds out that if she respects herself and expects men to do the same she’ll be much happier in life. The protagonist, and even the female rival who *spoiler alert* eventually becomes her ally when they bond over a mutual struggle for respect in the legal profession, are not 2D characters. That’s pretty unusual for this kind of comedy. Now, granted, the sequels to this film suck beyond belief in every conceivable way, but I’m only talking about this one
18. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)
Despite the fact that the leading lady in this one is very in control of her destiny and powers, which is part of why the film’s on this list, one could argue against it by saying she allows herself to be manipulated by her romantic interests to a certain degree. BUT the realization of that by the modern incarnation of her through her past life allows her to grow a sense of self enough to become more independent in the newer era. This forces the viewer to think about feminist issues in a creative way.
17. Supercop (1992)
Michelle Yeoh played a supporting character in this film, but she plays the equal half of a team of cops with amazing physical skills who take down the bad guys. Jackie Chan is also great in this film, but that’s entirely beside the point. Yeoh’s character is neither weak nor faux-macho. She’s just a supercop doing her job.
16. Hello, Dolly! (1969)
Dolly’s the master of all she surveys through the power of being a cunning and confident (if a bit sneaky) gal. Many different character types are depicted in this film, but the main character is a type of role not usually written for women and someone who is clearly very comfortable being exactly who she is no matter how garishly she might be perceived by others. One could argue that casting a younger than usual actress for the film was a bit ageist, but Streisand was undeniably the best suited for the part because of her personality and how she played the role – and her phenomenal singing.
15. Auntie Mame (1958)
This film portrayed a wide range of female personalities, while exploring them at length from a societal and philosophical standpoint. Mame is by no means a perfect person. She’s not especially talented or persistent at many of the things she tries, and she’s frequently self centered or inconsiderate. But she’s also independent and free-thinking, creative, bold, and brave. She breaks her nephew from the influence of prejudice and challenges the traditional view of a single parent for both herself and a certain Ms. Gooch. Auntie Mame paved the way for a completely new kind of female protagonist in media.
14. I.Q. (1994)
Yes, it’s true that Meg Ryan’s character isn’t officially the protagonist of the movie, but having a girl who’s more of a genius than Einstein and just needs a little push in the social arena is still a vastly agreeable portrayal of a 1950s woman compared to most.
13. Independence Day (1996)
Vivica A. Fox’s character, seen here in an action pose from the film, is arguably a minor one, but certainly memorable as a strong one. Jasmine could have easily been a dreadfully flat character, about like her flaky co-worker who got toasted. But instead the filmmakers pulled together a character who was multilayered, tough, and every bit as heroic as her male counterpart in a different set of circumstances. It’s hard to argue in favor of any positive portrayal of a stripper in a movie, but this one defies the norms so well that it overcomes and even becomes a commentary on the situation itself.
12. Harry Potter film series (2001-2011)
Yes, they deserve recognition because a female writer has towered above all men before her with the success of the franchise, but really these movies are basically just on the list for Hermione. She’s by no means the main character, but she’s such a great character that she stands out. She’s a genius, a tough cookie, an activist, and really the backbone of the trio. Luna’s a great character too, but not in the same way. Hermione is THE feminine icon of these stories, and possibly the defining feminine fictional character of a generation who grew up on these stories.
11. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Yeah, she’s in a looney bin in the beginning, but that’s not really her fault. You’d be a little on edge too if the same backstory had happened to you and the fate of all humanity rested on your ability to protect and train your offspring from homicidal cyborg things. And of course it’s nice that Sarah Connor in this movie kicks some serious butt and raises her son to free Earth from an evil computer. They undid how cool she is in T3 and the TV show, but that’s why I ignore the existence of everything after T2 as being beneath contempt. There were recently some negative articles about this film after people got all huffy over a critique of Wonder Woman, the huffy writers mostly being men (and some women for unknown reasons) who don’t see how ironic it is to rant about how women are portrayed since their main complaint was that Sara Connor didn’t look or act feminine enough and was therefore faux-masculine (a comment which only an insecure and in-denial sexist would make about any woman in the first place). Anyways, Connor is a character with considerable psychological and emotional depth and displays a tremendously complex character arc over both this movie and the two films combined (but mostly this one since the first one was just a wee bit stupid).
10. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
The character of 9-year-old Sally Salt, seen here brilliantly played by the now very famous Sarah Polley, begins and moves the whole story forward by being more brave, driven, and strong willed than the group of grown men comprising the rest of the team. A most unusual protagonist for an 80s fantasy film, and one of the great female characters in ficton.
9. Star Wars – original trilogy (1977-1983)
This image may not be the most dignified shot of Princess Leia, but it does illustrate a point: although she was a princess in need of rescuing, she shot her way out with everyone else and continued to take part in the rebel revolt as more than just a royal leader. One of the most common arguments against multi-faceted female characters is that they’re somehow non-feminine or unfeeling. There’s no way to make that argument float against Leia; not one. Yes, she’s a tough cookie. So are a lot of women in real life. She falls in love with a guy without taking any of his guff (women don’t have to be melodramatic victims to be feminine!), and then sneaks in to rescue his Vaseline-covered fanny from a giant slug-worm thing. She does do some emotional game-playing with Han Solo early on, she grows as a person over the course of the story to act more maturely later on. Even looking at it in the most shallow way possible though, she spends a huge portion of the last movie bonding with a community of fluffy teddy bear things, which shows a softer side as well. But I digress. My point is that, especially for a silly space opera based on old serials, she was a remarkably well-rounded and representative portrayal of a feminist character. My only beef is that when they brought her back for Force Awakens (which admittedly was not written by Lucas as the others were) she was in no way a Jedi and didn’t lift a finger to go after her nutty son like the still action-packed (if un-characteristically gullible and dumb) Han Solo was in that film.
8. New York Stories (1989)
For me, this is THE modern-day fairytale and a fine tongue-in-cheek role model for little girls. It has a mythological and magical feel, but all takes place in common settings with nothing strictly impossible occurring. The main character is a little girl who thwarts jewel thieves, saves a royal family from scandal and teaches a prince about friendship, and steers the destiny of her family – all without getting cartoonish or over the top. By being worldly from education and experience, yet childish in her curiosity and sense of fun, all without being spoiled or emotionally unstable, Zoe is a wonderfully aspirational character.
7. A League of Their Own (1992)
I’ve always been a little annoyed by the ending in this one (and I think Hanks was the wrong casting choice since he’s too warm and fuzzy for that kind of role, but I digress), but the main point of the film is that it features a nuanced look at women from all walks of life with every character type who break silly gender barriers in sports.
6. Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993)
This film showcases a range of personality types, and some fantastic singing by the whole cast. But it’s on this list because Whoopie plays a dynamic and capable leader (teamed up with other capable and talented women) without the usual feet of clay they tend to give these characters (e.g. being a domestic abuse victim, having an affair with a student or other teacher, being an alcoholic, etc., etc., etc.).
5. Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)
In this film, Whoopie plays an office drone who gets caught up in espionage and saves the life of a spy. As far as I have seen, this was as close as we’ve come to a female equivalent for action-comedies like Fletch and Beverly Hills Cop (with the VERY recent exception of Spy, which unlike this film was directed by a man). It has a female protagonist, female director, and is told from a noticeably female point of view. Really, why the heck haven’t more films like this been made by now?
4. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Michelle Yeoh makes her second appearance on this list as the best Bond Girl ever, Wai Lin. She seriously kicks and saves Bond’s butt, and provides some of the best action scenes ever. You’ll have to fast-forward past all the godawful scenes with Teri Hatcher’s unbearably weak and stupid character (which I suppose could be seen as included to be the highlighting opposite of Yeoh’s ultra competent and intelligent character) and then it’s basically Wai Lin’s movie and Bond becomes her supporting character. My dad thinks the Greek lady in For Your Eyes Only is the strongest woman in a Bond movie, and I used to think it was the one in Moonraker until I realized that was actually a patronizing commentary against feminism, but I get his point to a degree. As a sidenote, this is also the Bond movie with the best and most relevant villain.
3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Unlike the sitcom-turned-trashy-soap-opera TV show version of Buffy, the movie version had an admirable leading lady – possibly largely because of her character arc from useless fop to competent modern woman and warrioress. Also, this character is a bit of a callback to some of the same reasons Legally Blonde is on the list having to do with maintaining your identity and tastes in tough circumstances. Okay, I can hear some of you out there saying, “But she was trained by a male father-figure!” And to that I say, what’s wrong with that? Everyone has two parents, and one of them is male. Some stories will have mother-figures for female protagonists and others will have father-figures. Balance is good and it doesn’t need to be all one way. Also, if you really want to take on currently trendy parlance, you could say he’s a “male ally” to a female character’s feminist growth. Either way, my point is the same. This is a particularly good movie about a strong female character.
2. Pride and Prejudice (1995)
This mini-series adaptation (basically a really long movie) shows a wide range of the female personality, but focuses upon that of an intelligent, free-thinking, and bold lady, who is also polite and willing to admit when she’s wrong. Also, it’s nice to see a story about a woman to whom a man is drawn primarily by the strength of her unusually fine personality.
- Yentl (1983)
A very deliberately feminist musical (written, directed, and starred in by an independent woman) that shows the value of knowledge and honors the role of forward-thinking fathers. Nuff said.
A couple close contenders that didn’t make the list, and why not:
Hidden Figures came close, but it has several flaws – which ironically stem from the writers straying too far from reality. For example, it bothered me when the main character ran across the campus to use the segregated toilet because it seemed so out of character for a woman scientist. The ones I’ve known were eminently practical and had a great deal of grit, so I expected her to just go ahead and use the ladies room that was in the building regardless of what anyone thought (which I later found out is what the woman did in real life). I think it would have been a stronger character choice too, since as far as I can tell the way it was written just made the protagonist weaker and gave her boss an (also non-believable) moment of heroism.
I also considered Wonder Woman. There’s nothing really wrong with open pandering, but honestly her male love interest came off as the true protagonist (he had a noticeable character arc, got all the good lines, put together and led the scruffy band of misfits) with WW as his female sidekick. Also, the WW character in that film was generally too 2-dimensional for my tastes and was being led around by the nose – by men.
Nine to Five I can definitely see an argument for, especially when it came out, but it seems very dated to me now.
The Stepford Wives was a decent try, but it’s just too silly and the final argument, though valid, is a little flawed.